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Houston’s rising Democratic star defends staff indicted in Texas Rangers investigation

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fields questions after unsealed court documents alleged that staff members in Hidalgo's office steered an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 outreach project to a preferred vendor.
Lucio Vasquez
/
Houston Public Media
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fields questions after unsealed court documents alleged that staff members in Hidalgo's office steered an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 outreach project to a preferred vendor.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s staffers are accused of unfairly awarding a contract to a politically connected vendor during the pandemic. Hidlago says it’s an attempt to hurt her career.

Three current and former staffers of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have been indicted and are under investigation over allegations they unfairly awarded an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine campaign contract to a Democratic strategist. Hidalgo is defending her staff and claims the investigation is an attempt to damage her political career.

Jasper Scherer, Texas politics reporter for the Houston Chronicle, has been following the story. He tells Texas Standard that Hidalgo staffers allegedly communicated with the Houston-based consulting company, Elevate Strategies, weeks before that firm submitted its bid for the multimillion-dollar campaign it ultimately won. Listen to the interview with Scherer in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the allegations behind these indictments. All three apparently served on a committee that was providing recommendations for contracts during the pandemic, is that right?

Jasper Scherer: That’s right. Yeah, this is stemming from an investigation by the Texas Rangers, which is kind of a division of the state Department of Public Safety. And what the Rangers found, what they’re alleging, is that these three staffers who I would describe each as being in the judge’s inner circle – chief of staff and policy director, or some of her top aides – the investigation found that those three staffers, one of whom no longer works for her, may have inappropriately communicated with the head of this firm, Elevate Strategies, that ultimately received the outreach contract. They may have communicated with the firm weeks before it actually submitted a bid for the contract, so that’s where the official the misuse of official information charge comes in.

And then separately, each of the staffers signed written affidavits affirming that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they followed the letter of the law. And the Rangers are also charging that that’s inaccurate, that they misportrayed that, and that’s where the tampering charge comes in.

Why does Judge Hidalgo believe this is an effort to ruin her political career? Is there any evidence of that?

As far as her official involvement, there’s absolutely none. But, you know, I think it’s still fair to say that it carries quite a bit of potential to damage her, her reelection chances. Whether it ultimately prevents her from winning reelection is another thing, but she has kind of uniquely portrayed herself as sort of being above this system that she’s accused here of being tied to, and that’s in Harris County.

There’s kind of this perception, or in some cases, maybe reality depending on how you look at it, that vendors have unique access; they have kind of a wedge into the contract awarding process because they so commonly donate to the political campaigns of the commissioners, and usually the judge. But Judge Hidalgo has made a point of rejecting campaign contributions from county vendors. So that’s why this is thought to make her uniquely vulnerable in November because she’s made such a point of trying to separate herself from the system.

A lot of folks have seen her as a rising star in democratic politics beyond Harris County. What might this investigation do to her future career prospects?

I think it’s a little premature to speculate too heavily on that, but it’s absolutely true that she is viewed as someone who might run for statewide office one day.

The Texas Democrats, I think it’s well known that their their bench of potential candidates has been fairly thin for statewide offices in recent years. So, if this in some way wipes out her her chances of running statewide or prevented her from, you know, waging a serious candidacy in the future, I think that would strike a pretty significant blow for a lot of Democrats who are watching her career pretty closely.